December 23, 2004 4:00 AM PST
Sprucing up open source's GPL foundation
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overturn the idea of software patents. "We need to find some way to monkey-wrench the awful, broken software-patent oligopoly before it does more serious damage," said Eric Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative. "If GPL (version) 3 can help do that, it would be extremely valuable."
And Bruce Perens, an open-source advocate, would like to see damages for a patent-infringement suit extended to prohibit use not just of the software in question but of all programs classified as free software. "I would like to see the next issue of the GPL include a mutual-defense clause regarding patents, such that if you enforce a patent against any free software, your rights to use free software terminate," Perens said.
A middle ground is possible, Linux seller Novell said in a statement. "Intellectual-property protection and open source can work hand in hand and are not mutually inconsistent," the company said.Other changes
Stallman listed several other areas where modifications are under way:
The GPL will become more compatible with some other free software licenses that have minor conditions that currently prohibit programmers from intermingling the GPL and non-GPL code. None of those other licenses are very widely used, however, he said.
An area of investigation is getting GPL software to run on devices such as TiVo's digital video recorders, which use a specific version of Linux but won't run modified versions. But prohibitions on modifications violates the spirit of the GPL. "This is not what free software is supposed to be," Stallman said.
The next version likely will have a mechanism for dealing with GPL software that has been modified and that runs on publicly accessible computers. Today, a programmer who wanted his or her GPL software to run in this public fashion could insert a programming command that would let the public download a version of the software if it's been modified. However, with the current GPL, the organization running the software could simply remove that section of the code. Stallman is considering a provision that would prohibit its removal. "If the program has such a command already, and you modify the program, you must keep that working," he said.
Stallman isn't the only one looking for improvements.
Martin Fink, vice president of Linux at Hewlett-Packard, has been grappling with some thorny GPL issues. One problem he foresees--related to the TiVo issue Stallman raises--is integration with the "trusted computing" technology under development.
Among other things, trusted computing is designed to permit execution only of software that has been cryptographically signed--but that signature process could be at odds with the goals of sharing and modification at the heart of the GPL, Fink said.
Another specific hitch is that the GPL isn't clear about what exactly "distribution" means, Fink said. How should GPL software be treated that's distributed from a corporation to a subsidiary? Or from one machine to another as the program executes? "We're dealing in a world where a program entity is not confined to a machine. You can have bits and parts of a program that are highly distributed," Fink said, as in the widely embraced Web services concept.
Attorney John Ferrell of Carr & Ferrell would like to see a better indication of the use of derivative works--software based on the original GPL product. Is it a derivative work to include a GPL component unmodified as part of a larger software suite?
Derivative works, copyrights and other concepts are central to the GPL but those concepts vary by country and state. Radcliffe of Gray Cary would prefer precise definitions that are more absolute.
GPL improvements are crucial to the open-source software realm, Fink said. Improvements could help the license become more popular and better understood, which in turn would mean a larger body of GPL software that could be shared among projects.
"I'm trying to stop people from creating new licenses," Fink said. "To the extent we can create a license that has a broader buy-in, that stops proliferation of more licenses, that to me is goodness."
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